A Quiet Crisis

[Originally posted on Medium]

Until about two years ago, the phrases “opioid crisis” and “opioid epidemic” were barely a blip on the radar. Suddenly, a quiet crisis became loud, after a year when 116 people in our country died per day due to opioid-related overdoses and more than 42,000 families lost loved ones to opioid-related deaths. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services even put a number to the economic impact of this crisis, and it topped half a billion dollars for 2016 alone.

Even though this crisis rose suddenly in public awareness, hundreds of thousands of families had experienced it firsthand well before 2016. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) charts the epidemic in three waves, going back to 1999.

Graphic source: cdc.gov

So why did it take three waves of a crisis of this magnitude for the opioid epidemic to go from quiet to loud? A big part of it is that drug usage, drug overdoses and drug deaths still operate under an incredible stigma in our country. The “just say no” era meant that, for those who may have said yes — whether on a street corner, at a friend’s house or in a doctor’s office — becoming entangled in drug addiction could be painted as a personal weakness, not a medical crisis.

Today, Aug. 31, is International Overdose Awareness DayIt’s a movement that started in 2001, in part to encourage broad-based action on this crisis, but also to enable those who have been affected by overdoses to share their stories out loud.

Certainly the scope of those affected goes well beyond the opioid crisis. But it weighs heavily with me to know that several hundred Milwaukee County families will be marking this day for the first time because, within the last year, they lost a loved one who didn’t break free from the cycle of addiction — and the greatest number of those families will have lost a loved one to an opioid overdose.

In May, our community experienced six of these deaths in one weekend.Just a few weeks prior, the City-County Heroin, Opioid and Cocaine Task Force had issued a preliminary report to find the best ways to guide our entire community’s focus and resources toward controlling this crisis.

There are many, many ways that we’ve already started this effort in Milwaukee County, with some of our employees literally making fighting this epidemic their life’s work:

  • Our Department on Health and Human Services, which includes divisions that oversee behavioral health and housing, takes the lead in empowering healthy lives for our community. They provide a range of services, including medicated assisted treatment, residential treatment, recovery housing, day treatment, individual and family counseling … and more. They strive to focus on research-based approaches to ensure the best chance of success in providing services.
  • Our Medical Examiner’s office investigates opioid deaths to generate epidemiological data that can help dig into the source of these deaths, monitor trends and combat public health crises.
  • The Office of Emergency Management partners with many local agencies in ensuring proper training, procedures and resources are available to help a person undergoing an opioid-related exposure when first responders come on the scene.
  • Our Courts system offers a Drug Treatment Court that recognizes some criminal behavior can best be addressed by looking at underlying addiction issues.
  • Oh, and we filed a lawsuit against pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors.

For a lot of health issues, we can isolate risk factors. Age. Diet. Environmental factors. Family history. But you can’t isolate the opioid crisis to someone else’s neighborhood, someone else’s family or someone else’s fault. It’s an urban problem and a rural problem, a wealthy and a poor problem. This crisis reaches across race, education and ZIP code. And it’s up to all of us to solve it.

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